Flaws in the Afghan model

By Zvi Bar'el (Haaretz, Wednesday, December 04, 2002)


Rumors about the death of the fanatics in Afghanistan were premature. Local bosses and drug traffickers are entering the vacuum created by the Karzai regime. The U.S., eager to bring the message of the West to Iraq, seems to be turning a blind eye.

Under the Taliban government in Afghanistan, the rule of law came up with some original methods of punishment. One of them, for example, was known as "the collapsing wall." It was meant as retribution for people who were convicted of sexually abusing children. The convicted individual was placed next to a brick wall and then a tractor knocked the wall down, burying the offender under the rubble: Only God could save him.

In the meantime, a regime change was carried out in Afghanistan, the Taliban are gone, and reports about sexual molestation of children are again cropping up in the Afghan press. According to an "accepted custom," children are required to sing in front of adults at family celebrations, following which some adults take the children and "amuse themselves" with them. That is not the only innovation in present-day Afghanistan. Last year, under the limited rule of President Hamid Karzai, who is protected by no fewer than 200 American soldiers, Afghanistan set a new record: It became the largest producer of opium in the world.

The euphoria that accompanied the liberation from the Taliban regime has also been enjoyed by the drug barons and the local bosses. They are able to grow poppies with no fear of the brutal harassment that was inflicted on them by the Taliban, who banned this crop. According to a United Nations report, Afghanistan produced 3,400 tons of opium last year.

The satisfaction at the considerable improvement in the status of women in that country is also likely to fade when the UN presents its report on the subject, which is due out today. According to the report, the education system for women was expanded in only one city - Kabul, the capital. In Kabul, some women can work in professions that were barred to them during the Taliban era. But in the rural areas and in the other cities, women's rights remain a dead letter. Women are afraid to take jobs and hardly any girls' schools have been opened, and those that have opened are being attended by men. Similarly, the personal safety and security of women in Afghanistan is at a nadir.

In short, the situation in Afghanistan, according to media reports and human rights organizations, is rapidly reverting to what it was during the period of Taliban rule. For example, the "Islamic Morality Police," who operate on the streets of Kabul, are seizing men and women who do not behave according to the rules of Islam. A judge who was appointed by Karzai ruled this week that cable television must be prohibited because it is contrary to the Islamic faith. The lopping off of organs - which has again become a form of punishment in the provinces - along with public flogging by policemen and torture of prisoners no longer draw public attention. Refugees who returned home suffer discrimination, and the new constitution, which is currently being formulated, will include harsh religious elements that are little different from those that guided the Taliban authorities.

Request for $1.5 billion

Afghanistan is supposed to serve as a model of the democratization and nation-building process that the U.S. adopted when it went to war against the Al-Qaida bases in the country. Phrases such as "the liberation of Afghanistan," "the creation of representative national institutions," "human rights" and "women's rights" embellished the speeches of senior American officials, who thought that a campaign against Al-Qaida bases was not a sufficient cause to prosecute a war against Afghanistan.

We are now hearing the same phrases, this time in connection with the looming war against Iraq. The 16 months that have gone by since the change of regime in Afghanistan are not a sufficient period to gauge in-depth processes in the local society. Still, there are a number of important indexes that can be of use in an attempt to evaluate what we can expect to see in Iraq if the U.S. administration seeks to implement its Afghanistan policy there as well.

President Hamid Karzai paid a visit to Washington about a month ago, meeting with President George Bush, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell. The real reason for the visit was to ask for additional aid and security for his country. At a joint press conference with Bush, not one question was directed to Karzai. He stood next to Bush like an ornament, dressed in his by-now familiar green robe, which has become something like the logo of the new Afghanistan. None of the reporters showed any interest in him or his country.

It is difficult to find substantive proof for Bush's words of praise for Karzai's activity or for the American efforts to assist him. The draft foreign aid budget submitted by the administration to Congress contains not so much as one dollar for Afghanistan. In an unusual move, it was Congress itself that initiated aid of $300 million for Kabul. When an official of the State Department, testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee, was asked why the administration was not asking for aid for Afghanistan, he replied that when the budget was drawn up, it was unclear how much money would be needed. The reply drew guffaws from the committee members. Karzai explained to members of Congress that he needs $1.5 billion this year for development purposes and another $500 million for routine administrative expenses.

A conference that was held last year in Tokyo to raise funds for Afghanistan produced commitments of some $4.5 billion. In practice, less than one-third of that amount was made available. Against the background of the threatened war against Iraq, Afghanistan is unlikely to receive the missing funds or get new aid. In the absence of a budget, the government will not be able to compete with the tribal chieftains, local bosses and warlords who are imposing their rule on the majority of Afghanistan's provinces without regard for the government.

A soldier in the new Afghan army, which was trained by the Americans and the Germans, gets a monthly wage of $50. A fighter in the ranks of the private militia of the Kandahar governor, Khan Mohammed, earns $120 a month. And this is not the only competition the government finds itself involved in. The Central Intelligence Agency pays far larger amounts to militiamen who take part in the unceasing pursuits of Al-Qaida men.

It turns out that not even the Americans can always buy assistance with money. In the northern city of Konduz, where local militias are operating alongside the Americans under the command of a local leader, Daoud Khan, it emerged that the militiamen, who received salaries from the Americans, concealed wanted Taliban men.

The direct control of the government, which consists of 32 ministries in order to placate all the factions, is confined only to the boundaries of Kabul. Attempts by Karzai to oblige the provincial governors to transfer to the central government the revenues they collect from taxes encounter total refusal.

Bagram deaths

The presence of about 10,000 American troops in Afghanistan is also starting to cause difficulties. Shooting at American targets as well as the planting of bombs and the mining of patrol roads are becoming daily occurrences. In the three weeks between January 16 and February 5, 30 incidents were recorded, involving shooting, abductions of civilians and other attacks. Posters attacking the presence of the American forces are put up in mosques overnight.

The report that two Afghan citizens died at the American interrogation facility located at Bagram Air Base, the U.S. military headquarters north of Kabul, this week heightened tensions and fed the anger directed at the U.S. The two died in December and their deaths were explained at the time as having been due to "natural causes." An investigative report by The New York Times exposed the truth. The paper's reporters met with family members and were given the report of a military pathologist, which classified the deaths as homicides. A spokesman for the military, responding to the findings, said that the deaths were not necessarily the result of a criminal act, as such an act requires "criminal intent."

Reports in the Afghan press speak of a condescending attitude toward Afghan citizens by the members of the American Special Forces in the country. According to the reports, the U.S. troops break furniture and beat up members of the family while conducting house searches. In some cases, women have been subjected to body searches. An Afghan citizen who was interviewed by the BBC warned that if another search like that is carried out, "we will show them the meaning of anger." The American troops set up checkpoints in towns and villages without knowing the local language. They are equipped with pages listing the essential words and phrases, such as "stand still," "move forward," "be careful" and the like.

If the presence of 10,000 American soldiers is generating a resistance movement in Afghanistan, one can conjecture what the presence of more than 250,000 soldiers will do in Iraq. The pressure that the American troops are facing comes not only from the tough missions, the terrible weather and the rugged terrain. "There is no way of knowing who is for you and who is against you here," an American soldier wrote home in a letter that was published in the United States. "Everyone is a suspect."

A reporter for The Christian Science Monitor who visited a Special Forces unit of 12 soldiers, situated far from any regular base, described the field security routine at the outpost. No paper contains the name of the commander, and the soldiers address one another by their first names only, without rank or surname. The concern is that if anyone's surname somehow leaks out, Islamic terrorists are liable to attack his relatives in the U.S. The soldiers described battles they conducted with Afghan troops who were supposed to be on their side.

At Bagram Air Base, American soldiers have scuffles every day with Afghans who show up to collect scraps of food or building materials from the base garbage dump. The soldiers frequently open fire at the civilians to scare them off and sometimes use dogs to help them. The reports in the Pakistani press, especially in the opposition papers, are even more serious, but they can be suspected of bias.

In December 2001, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld declared that the American armed forces would not remain in Afghanistan indefinitely. In the meantime, it is difficult to see when the U.S. troops will be able to leave the country, as every day more reports come in about the regrouping of Taliban forces and Al-Qaida activists.

At the same time, it is difficult to know how long the American forces will be able to withstand the hostility that is developing against them in the various provinces, even as very little is being done to rehabilitate the country.

"Afghanistan has already dropped off the radar screen," Senator Joseph Biden (Democrat, Delaware) said on February 26, at a meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that was addressed by President Karzai. "What level of commitment will the administration display once Afghanistan winds up behind Iraq, North Korea and whatever comes next?"

The same comment might soon become valid in the case of Iraq. It too has factions, tribes and local bosses, and in Iraq, too, the American export of democratization is liable to end up being isolated inside army barracks.

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